Introducing Pie Aerts
Because people matter
Pie Aerts is one of the world’s most promising documentary photographers and he’s working on a spectacular new book with MENDO.
After having his work featured in Depart, Streets of New York and the upcoming Streets of London, one would start to think Pie Aerts knows his ways around a camera. He does. Actually, he knows his ways around the world as well, travelling around the globe to capture breathtaking nature and inspirational people with the two loves of his life: his girlfriend Jessica and his camera.
Now it’s time for a book of his own. And we are extremely happy that MENDO is going to be the one making it. We sat down with Pie, on one of the rare days he was in Amsterdam, to get to know him a little better right before he left on his great adventure.
Hi Pie, could you tell us how you became a photographer?
After getting my Masters degree in Maastricht University, I started working for the largest food retail company of the Netherlands. I’ve worked in several commercial positions for six years, and although it was hard work, it allowed me to travel the world as well. Being in charge of the cheese & dairy business for years, I had to travel to factories and farmers all around Europe. Weekdays were for work, but I always brought my camera to explore the surroundings in the weekends.
At that time, photography was just a creative outlet for me. I spent every single moment outside of work shooting and it slowly became a larger part of my life until it became too much. Working close to 60 hours a week, and spending every moment of spare time on photography – I got overworked and it resulted in a burn-out which I have only recently recovered from. I’ve been quite restless and adventurous all my life, but my burnout forced me to reset both my body and mind. It made me see clearly that this is the path I should follow. I learned that it is more important to meet your own expectations, than those of others. Up until now I made decisions that would help me fit in society’s perfect picture, but now It’s time to follow my heart and pursue my dream. Even if that means quitting my job and taking a big leap of faith.
What is that dream?
Telling stories with my photography. There are many things that are interesting about photography. Playing with light, seeing a short moment that, thanks to that one photograph, can be captured forever, the journalistic power of it … but what appeals to me the most is the connection. There are many lame one-liners in the line of “the power of a good photo lies not within the photographer or subject, but in the connection between those two.” They are right! Whether it’s a person, a landscape, an elephant or a dining room table; it doesn’t matter. The connection between subject and photographer is exactly what makes a good photo, and it’s exactly what appeals to me. Because in the end photography is all about emotion.
How do we see the connection in your work?
It’s a question I constantly ask myself; “what makes me different from other photographers?” And I think answering that question with images is easier than words. It often means that you genuinely spend time with the people you photograph. If you take Sebastiao Salgado, for instance, one of my favorite photographers, his work has a strong sense of human dignity. My work is different, and the way I work probably differs as well, but I’ve always tried to approach people in the same respectable way. That sincerity is extremely important. Genuine interest makes you connect with people, and that’s like planting a seed for a good image with a story.
Because People Matter.
Exactly! Just because people matter! We live in a world where everything has been done, altered and modified. You rarely see anything authentic. And even though I hate the word “authentic”, I think it’s important. In our society, a lot of things are automatic and individual. That’s probably why this kind of photography is so popular nowadays. Whether it’s a tribesman in a distant country, or my neighbours back home in Amsterdam. There are so many stories waiting to be told and photography is my instrument to do so.
You know, nowadays it’s fairly easy to shoot “technically perfect” images. Photography has become accessible to a lot of people and because of that, much of it has become volatile. Many photographers do the same, and it gets forgotten the next day. But it’s much more difficult to elicit an emotional response. That’s why I think it’s interesting to put the emphasis on the “matter”. To show why a photo is made, and what it’s trying to tell. That is what drives me as a storytelling photographer.
‘What appeals to me the most is the connection’
‘What appeals to me the most is the connection’
Does that bother you sometimes?
I think it’s one of the hardest aspects of this profession, but the key is slowing down. To me, making connections with people is the most important. The rest is secondary. I’m not just there to take a snapshot and leave. Also because I try to let things go as naturally as possible. Of course, I occasionally shoot portraits for which I give some clear instructions, but I prefer to stay in the background to observe, analyze, and take my time to understand a situation. When you take your time, you become part of your subject’s environment and only that’s when the magic happens. Your presence as a photographer can influence the way people react. And remember, there are still places in the world where people have never even seen a photo of themselves. That’s a sensitivity that brings a lot of responsibilities to the photographer.
How do you deal with that?
Some days I don’t bring my camera at all, and some days I’m just a fly on the wall. I want to make a genuine connection to the surroundings and the people, and that means that you have to observe sometimes, rather than just shoot. I’m sure there will be some portraits here and there, but I’m not just there to take some images or stories. I’m there to make a connection.
It’s the reason why I’m going back to some locations I’ve already been. Previously, I used to be that guy that was collecting as many passport stamps as possible. But my life has changed drastically in the last year; photography became my main occupation, and personally I slowed down a bit. Going back to India or China, for instance, would allow me to discover new things that I wouldn’t have seen before. I’ve learned to take more time and I think that provides more interesting stories, which will hopefully result in a beautiful book.
Speaking of which, how did the MENDO – Pie connection come to life?
For me, it’s not a coincidence that I’m making a book with MENDO and teNeues. As a kid, I grew up with photography books. My dad had a big collection, and most of his books were made by teNeues. Needless to say, I became a big fan of MENDO when I came to Amsterdam. It was like heaven for a photography lover like myself. I became a regular customer and coincidentally discovered that Joeri (MENDO’s co-owner) lives across my street. Apparently he knew people that I knew, we got to know each other a little better, and eventually my photo even became the cover image for Depart. It’s almost as if it had to be like this. I discovered teNeues twenty years ago, ten years later one of the MENDO guys became my neighbour, and now another ten years forward, I’m making a book with both MENDO and teNeues.
What are your expectations for the project?
Me and Jessica both quit our jobs, to fully focus on photography, traveling and storytelling. The coming year we are going to India, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, China and Indonesia before we take a little break in The Netherlands. After that break, we’re leaving for Ethiopia, Uganda, Argentina, Cuba and New Zealand where we will celebrate our ten-year anniversary. It’s going to be a heavy and exciting year and I’m beyond excited for this book. I’ve worked up to this point for the last fifteen years, so you could see it as the crown on my, however young, career. The amount of hours put in this book are uncountable. And I hope it will be a platform to mark a new path for the rest of my life.
The book that Pie and MENDO / teNeues are working on is expected early 2019. We will obviously keep you posted. Follow Pie’s adventure on a day-to-day basis, on Instagram.
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